Spencer Finch creates colour ‘portrait’ of disappearing Spiral Jetty

9/11 memorial artist produces site-specific work based on Great Salt Lake for Utah Museum

by Anny Shaw  |  25 August 2017
Spencer Finch creates colour ‘portrait’ of disappearing Spiral Jetty
Spencer Finch installing his work Great Salt Lake and Vicinity (2017), which records the colours of the landscape in which Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty sits (Image: courtesy of Utah Museum of Fine Arts)
As Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty has become more exposed due to drought in the past few years, debate has raged over whether the famous land art work should be preserved. But now a new site-specific installation by the US conceptual artist Spencer Finch has recorded the colours of the 1,500ft-long basalt rock work, as well as the 2,500 square mile Great Salt Lake in which Spiral Jetty sits.

Finch, who created a crystalline blue work to honour those killed in the 9/11 attacks, spent three days in June circumnavigating the lake by car, jeep and boat, armed with a book of Pantone colour swatches. He then matched the flora and fauna he saw–evaporation pools, sagebrush, deer–to the colours in his sample book to create Great Salt Lake and Vicinity (2017). 

The work, which consists of the colour samples installed in a line around the room with short captions scrawled in pencil beneath, is being unveiled when the Utah Museum of Fine Arts reopens after 19 months refurbishment on 26 August. 

Spencer Finch, Great Salt Lake and Vicinity (2017) (Image: courtesy of Utah Museum of Fine Arts)

“A section of Spencer’s installation is a portrait–in Pantone colour swatches–of Smithson’s iconic earthwork and its surrounding landscape,” says Whitney Tassie, the senior curator at the museum. “Like the land artists of the 1960s and 1970s, Finch leans heavily on documentation to convey his work, in this instance a type of non-invasive intervention in a remote location.

“Like the non-site works of Smithson, Finch’s Pantone installation brings a specific landscape into the museum, but he uses colour and language, rather than rocks or sand, to create an experience, to engage the viewer’s memory and imagination.”

In an interview with Tassie, Finch says he was initially “underwhelmed” when he first encountered Spiral Jetty. “It sort of felt smaller and lower than I thought,” he says. “And then, walking out on it, I thought it was really great, and it felt more modest, and then I thought that was kind of great, you know?”

He adds: “It was made almost 50 years ago, and it has this kind of modesty, like an artist just got a guy with a dump truck, more or less. Not at all like something with a Jeff Koons production value. But just someone who’s really determined to make something interesting.” 

The consensus among the three organisations that look after Spiral Jetty (the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Great Salt Lake Institute and the Dia Art Foundation in New York, which owns the work) is that there is no need to take direct action to protect it. Earlier this year, the sculpture was named an official state work of art by Utah.

“I can't speak for the next 100 years, but right now the current thinking is to not attempt any sort of preservation beyond protecting the landscape,” Tassie says. 

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